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Pete Newell, head basketball coach at the University of California, is an intense perfectionist. At the height of the season, he is in the depths. He looks for bobby pins on the street to bring luck, and his 6-foot 1�-inch frame shrinks from a trim 180 pounds to a wracked 165. His stomach is too turbulent to keep much food, and on the day of a game he keeps going on 20 cups of coffee and maybe two packs of cigarettes. During a game he allows himself the treat of chewing on wet towels set aside by the team manager. Once in a while, he will inadvertently take some salt into his system by biting into a towel that a player has used to mop his brow. "Basketball," says Newell, explaining the reason for his malaise, "is a game of mistakes, and the team making the fewer mistakes generally wins."
Despite his worry, or perhaps because of it, California rarely makes more mistakes than an opponent. In fact, California on the average makes only six ball-control errors a game compared with an opponent's 15, and since Newell figures control of the ball is worth about 1.5 points, that gives Cal a 14-point head start before the teams even take to the court.
As the result of such attention to detail, Newell, a relatively young coach (44), has been able to accomplish much with players of ordinary ability. While coaching at the University of San Francisco, his first major job, he surprised almost everyone, except himself and his unknown players, by winning the National Invitation Tournament. At Michigan State, he took a team that had won only four and lost 18 and, within the space of a year, had it holding its own in the Big Ten. His greatest accomplishment to date, however, has been at Berkeley. He began coaching there in 1955, and since then California has won three Pacific Coast Conference titles and one National Collegiate Athletic Association championship. With only one loss in its first 13 games this year, California may be on its way to another national title.
To many Californians the NCAA victory last spring ranks as the university's greatest athletic achievement. Indeed, it was a truly remarkable team victory. Not one player on the team had been All-State or its equivalent in high school, and only one, Al Buch, the captain, had ever received any sort of outside recognition for his play in college. Buch made the West Coast NCAA squad, but at that he was tied in the voting for last place on the second team.
LIFE AGAINST THE ODDS
Newell himself has long been given to looking at life as a battle against odds. He was born in Vancouver, B.C., on August 31, 1915, the youngest of eight children. "I was 13 before I knew there was anything but a neck to a chicken," he says. When he was a year old, his father, Peter Francis Newell Sr., an official of the Knights of Columbus, moved to Los Angeles where Mrs. Newell fell into the spirit of the place by pushing young Peter, or Junior, as he was then called, and his sister, Catherine, into motion pictures. Newell acted until he was 8. At the peak of his career, he had a featured role in the film version of Gene Stratton Porter's novel, Michael O'Halloran, and it is part of family legend that he and Jackie Coogan "went down to the wire" in Chaplin's casting of The Kid. In other epics, Junior, who looked like a plump little Lord Fauntleroy, appeared with Theda Bara and Pauline White and once was directed by Eric Von Stroheim. Still, these were joyless years. Von Stroheim terrified him ("He looked just like one of those German generals who was going to devour all of us"), the hours were rigorous ("I have a vivid recollection of getting up at 5 in the morning to head for those bloody studios") and, worst of all, he had to wear an appalling Dutch bob ("I probably had more fights than any other kid in my end of the city"). "He always had a dirty face and a baseball bat in his hand," Catherine recalls, "and the haircut just didn't go with it. All he wanted for his birthday was a haircut. So finally my mother had it cut when he was 8."
The hated locks shorn, Newell threw himself into athletics, began blackmailing Catherine for smoking on the sly and got himself a paper route. There he first showed aptitude for coaching. "He always had two or three kids to help him," Catherine says. "One folded, one delivered and Pete directed. He always managed to have people do what he wanted." He also had a bad temper and once had to be subdued with a hose after denting a car fender with a bat. The temper is still with him, though he has learned how to control it in recent years. "In golf," says an old friend, "he used to rival Tommy Bolt. There was no tying him down. The clubs would fly in one direction and the bag in another."
The Depression was on when Newell was graduated from high school, and since money was tight (his father had died when he was 13), he decided to go to sea. A relative got him appointed a cadet officer on the Dollar Line, and he made several trips to the Far East. He came home to wait for a round-the-world run, but his friends persuaded him to enroll at Loyola with them. He did, and he worked his way through driving a truck and playing softball for Safeway Stores.
As a basketball player at Loyola he c ame under the spell of Jimmy Needles, the coach. Needles, now a San Francisco advertising man, had coached the first U.S. Olympic basketball team, and he had many ideas about the game. The main one was tempo control, the art of throwing the opposing team off stride and forcing it into error by playing the game at a speed to which it was unaccustomed. In Newell and Phil Woolpert, who has since won two NCAA championships as Newell's successor at the University of San Francisco, Needles had two entranced pupils. "Pete was a very unusual defensive player," Needles says. "We changed him from forward to guard because of his leadership and meticulousness in carrying out assignments. He was a great team player, and he was a great one for analyzing the idiosyncrasies of an opponent."
THE TURN TO COACHING